WARNING: This post contains all kinds of spoilers for America’s literary classics. If you have any interest in reading those books one day, then you probably shouldn’t read this. On the other hand, if you have no desire to read the classics but wouldn’t mind having a general idea of what they are about so that you can impress your friends and family with your literary genius, then this is the post for you.
Writing books is hard. Writing great books is harder. For some—cough Stephenie Meyer cough—the task seems to be impossible. But it doesn’t have to be impossible for you. As someone who studied American literature in college, I have the golden rules for getting your book off of the shelves and onto America’s literary cannon. Here are my five tips to follow if you’re going to write the next Great American Novel.
1) Write in first person. Melville does it in Moby Dick. Twain does it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Cather does it in My Antonia. Hemingway does it in The Sun Also Rises. Fitzgerald does it in The Great Gatsby. Nabokov does it in Lolita. Salinger does it in The Catcher and the Rye. The statistics speak for themselves. If you want your novel to be great, give it a first-person narrator. And if one person’s perspective is not enough to satisfy your creative juices, then think like Faulkner; in As I Lay Dying, each chapter is written in first person from a different point of view.
2) Do not write a happy love story. There is no Pride and Prejudice in the American literary cannon. If you want to write about love, then you really need to write about heartbreak. Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has been called the only great American love story. Now, I will admit that Janie and Tea Cake may have a love like no other, but for those of you who haven’t read the book, this is how it ends: Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. Soon after, Tea Cake goes crazy, and Janie has to shoot him in the head to stop him from attacking her. Then, she is put on trial for murder. Not exactly happily ever after, but it’s better than the love story we’re given in Lolita. In Nabokov’s novel, self-proclaimed pedophile Humbert Humbert is so obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores Hayes that he marries her mother to be closer to the little girl. When the mother dies, Humbert attempts to drug Lolita (as he affectionately/creepily refers to her) so that he can molest her without causing any psychological damage. The drugs don’t work, but that is no matter; Lolita wants to sleep with Humbert, too. For years, Humbert keeps Lolita essentially as his captive. As she grows up, she begins to hate him, but she is forced to keep sleeping with him. When Lolita finally escapes Humbert, she is so emotionally damaged that she falls in love with a creep who wants her to star in his porn films. Long story(ies) short, it’s okay for your novel to involve a love story, but you better make sure it ends in the most twisted, miserable way possible.
3) Write about kids. America loves youth. This is why we spend so much money on Botox and why we’re always seeing women on the street who are dressed way to young for their age: We all want to be young forever. Fictional kids never grow up, and they’re all over our literary classics. We’ve got Huck Finn as Twain’s proganist, Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and, of course, the aforementioned Lolita. But authors don’t use kids simply to satisfy our Peter Pan syndrome—or at least not entirely. From a literary perspective, kids make great protagonists for two reasons: Their innocence and their angst. And if you can combine these two traits in your youthful, first person narrator, then your book is destined for gold. Salinger masters this combination in The Catcher and the Rye. Whether he’s crazy, in mourning, or just your average, slightly spoiled 17-year-old boy, Holden Caulfield is the epitome of teenage angst. He is always angry and always complaining. He doesn’t understand why everyone around him is either a pervert or a phony. But that’s what makes his character work: he doesn’t understand; he’s still a child. One day he will be old and cynical and give up on the world, but for now, he is still innocent. He can’t accept things as they are. And when people read this novel, neither can they.
4) Make it a road novel. A 2009 article published in The Guardian calls the road novel, “a purely American form of literature.” And it’s true; American authors love to put their characters on the road. Huck Finn and Jim travel down the Mississippi River. Humbert Humbert takes Lolita on a drive across America. In As I Lay Dying, Anse Bundren and his family travel across Mississippi to bury his dead wife, Addie, with “her people.” The Joads family leaves Oklahoma and heads for a better life in California in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Americans have a “Go West, young man,” mentality engrained within us, and thus, we like to read about movers. Keep in mind that it matters not if your protagonists make it to their final destination or if they change along the way. What matters is that they never lose the desire to keep moving.
5) Don’t answer the big questions, only ask them. In my opinion, this is the biggest difference between journalism and literature. In journalism, the whole purpose of writing is to come to a conclusion, and the faster you can come to that conclusion, the better. In literature, writers can carry on for hundreds and hundreds of pages only to conclude nothing at all. At the end of Huck Finn, we’re told that Huck wants to leave civilized life behind and travel West to see the Indians, but we actually have no idea what happens to this rambunctious preteen. Morrison’s Song of Solomon ends with her protagonist, Milkman, jumping off of a cliff, and readers are left to wonder whether flies, like his legendary ancestor, or falls to a violent death.
Of course, the award for the best ambiguous book ending (and overall book, in my opinion) goes to Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby ends by concluding,
“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
What happens on that fine morning? Does faster, farther reaching lead us to the American dream, or are we destined to continue reaching, and continue failing, forever? Fitzgerald doesn’t tell us the answer, which leaves us with only one option: We’ve got to keep reaching, just in case.